Hiking The Black Forest Trail
We planned this trip along the Black Forest Trail (BFT) only about 10 days before we left. Jeffrey has a broken wrist, and some time off - and we just felt like getting away. We have been thinking about heading out to Glacier National Park this summer, and wanted to use this trip as a stepping stone to measure our fitness, to test our equipment, to try out some of the trail meals we've been creating with the dehydrator we bought ourselves for Christmas, and mostly to determine how much we can expect from our selves in a day. In previous years, we've done a few Weekend Warrior hikes on the Appalachian Trail, but most of our adventuring has been by bicycle -- packing up our worldly belongings on our bicycles and living like gypsies for a week or 10 days. For both of us, the majority of our backcountry experiences come from 10 or more years ago. Neither of us were sure if we would do the whole 42 miles in 3.5 days - but we were willing to try. Besides, the map shows some easy shortcuts if we needed them.
The forecast was calling for unseasonably cold weather for April, in the 20's overnight and maybe in the 30's or 40's during the day... each day getting a bit warmer. Forecasts also called for rain and/or snow. Optimistically, we compared the expected chill to what we are expecting at Glacier this summer. We decided our summer weight camping gear would be okay if we supplemented it with thermal underwear and goo sense. As our departure grew closer, the forecasts got more and more favorable. We were psyched up and ready to go.
First things first - we can't seem to find the trailhead, and when we do, we can't seem to find the parking lot that is supposed to be "right there." Finally, we leave the car in what may or may not be the parking lot, and try to decide which way we want to be heading. Again - normally, this would all be an easy task, but it turns out that this part of the trail was rerouted - so it matched neither our map nor our cues. We did not, however, learn this tidbit for several miles.
The trail looks mighty steep - and I for one am quite surprised by its slope. Walking down it is a sad combination of baby steps and sliding. After about 1/4 of a mile, we don't reach any of the landmarks we think we should and we decide were hiking the wrong direction. We head back for the road and study the map only to decide e simply had to be heading in the right direction because of the location of the river. I made a mental note of the trouble with hastiness and we're off again down the steep trail.
We hike for at least 30 minutes, and still, we have not even hit the cues that were less than 1/4 of a mile from the trailhead. We are concerned but decide that we will eventually cross an undisputable landmark and identify our location -- the sun was coming out, we were happy to be on the trail, and exactly where we started didn't matter. Soon, we saw a trail register, signed in, and realized that we started just a bit north of the actual trailhead. This is also where we learned of the reroute. So, now we know where we are, and continue hiking the « mile down to the river. The cues, and even the picture on the back of the cues promise us a suspension bridge across slate run river - which we are looking forward to seeing because it will be the absolute landmark that we have been waiting for - and we will be finally certain of our location. As we hit the river bed, there is a double blaze indicating a sharp change of direction, and one on the other side of the river as well - but no bridge! We can't believe it and walk a good ways in both directions thinking that we are on the old trail instead of the reroute - or the other way around... the water looks very cold, very deep, and fairly fast... we decide they can't possibly expect us to wade through this. We hike the « mile back to the trail register to see if there are any clues about the missing bridge. None. We hike back down again, and decide to don gore-tex socks, river sandals, and rain pants to wade through the river... It took us awhile, and our socks leaked, but we made it.
We changed back into our hiking boots, and started up the hill. By now, we had been out almost 2 hours, and were at .41 miles on the cues. obviously we had hiked a good amount more, but it still felt kind of defeating. The hill we are climbing is much steeper than anything I've hiked in the Appalachian Trail - I'm really surprised how it takes us straight up instead of using a more indirect path. As we are climbing, we see a whole mess of wild turkeys and deer cross the trail in front of us. It takes our mind off the climb, and reminds us of why we are there. The climb doesn't end, and despite both of us being in good shape, we are gasping a bit. I'm feeling more than a bit nauseated from not eating enough and I'm looking for a lunch spot. We discuss it and decide we'll eat when we hit the plateau, but we never seem to hit it, and decide to just sit in the trail and have a snack before we exhaust ourselves too much. We have a nice snack of peanut butter and crackers, and hit the trail again. Less than 1/4 mile later, we hit the summit, and what would have been the most spectacular lunch spot ever! We laugh at our fate, and continue on - enjoying the vistas and the layered rock formations all around us. Now that we are on the plateau, we are making good time and after an hour or so decide that we can make the camp site at 9.54 miles by 5:00 or so... seems like a good plan. Our confidence is way up there as are the temperatures - almost 60 degrees!
The trail takes a steep turn downhill, and again I marvel at just how steep it is. Jeffrey is like a mountain goat, and skips from rock to rock as if he has never heard the words "sprained ankle." I'm more prudent. The descent is challenging, but really beautiful with cascading waterfalls to our right.
Now we are at the bottom again, having lost most if not all of the altitude we had worked so hard to gain. We are walking along the river bed which is a bit boggy. We pass a small bridge across the river made from 2 logs, and speculate why it is there. A short while later we realize that we must cross the river. Jeffrey decides he can jump across on some rocks, and I realistically decide that I am simply not that agile with my pack on, and decide to backtrack to that log bridge. He is patient, and we are both still dry.
We continue along and until we are at the base of the High Water Trail. The cues say that two more rivers must be crossed, and if the water is high the High Water Trail is recommended. I'm silently pondering the pros and cons, when Jeffrey darts off down the [low water] trail, and I follow. Jeffrey and I compliment each other -- he pushes hard in the face of a challenge, and I sometimes stop and think too much - then take the easy route from fear. We have both learned to listen to each other: I follow his lead and do things I might have been afraid to do otherwise, and he follows my lead and stays away from things that are sometimes just too risky. So, we take the low water route, and needless to say when we get to the river we realize that crossing it will be no easy feat. I'm not even feeling a little righteous... but a bit tired. I suggest we call it a day and make camp by the river. He wants to push on - and we do. So we backtrack and take the high water route which promises us luxuries such as bridges. As we approach, I see no bridge and get concerned... But when we arrive, there is a small wooden bridge, calling us to her in all her glory. We cross, and follow a small road.
While we are on this road, my left shoelace gets caught in my right boot - and I half trip, save myself, and continue on. I make a mental note to tuck my laces in my boot next time we stop. I don't want to stop right then because I feel I've been slowing us down too much already - by demanding we stop for lunch and by backtracking to 2 bridges. Soon, I trip again, this time not saving myself -- but crashing hard into the dirt and rock road with the weight of my backpacking making the impact extra painful. A quick inventory reveals lots of pain - primarily my knees, and left elbow but I'm hopeful that they're just skinned and the pain will subside shortly... Meanwhile, I need to take off my pack and just lie back for awhile.. I keep repeating out loud, "I'm okay - I just need to rest for a moment." I'm not sure who I was trying to convince. Eventually, the pain does subside somewhat, and we proceed - albeit more slowly now.
We climb again some more, rejoin the BFT, and climb some more. The camp site we chose looks about 2 miles away -- primarily up hill. The cues promise a vista about « way up that we never seem to pass. It starts to rain. We are both so hot from the climb that the rain feels good. It's just a drizzle, and although I realize that it's much colder than I think it is, I don't get out my rain gear. The climb goes on forever, and in my mind I'm making contingency plans: How much water do we have? If we stop right here, what can we make for dinner without exhausting our water supply? Is there even a spot flat enough to stop here? I'm convinced we still have at least a mile to go when we hear the small stream and see the place that we were aiming for. I don't remember ever passing that vista. We are at 9.54 miles on the cues, but we figure we hiked at least 15.
We quickly set up camp, and the rain starts coming down harder. Our body temps decline just as rapidly. We decide to eat in the tent. Dinner was a potato cheese soup that we concocted from veggies we dried our selves, lots of spices, and some fresh grated cheddar and parmesan. As we put the pot of hot soup in the vestibule of the tent and climbed into our bags, a thick steam filled the air and we were instantly both too hot, too cold, and too exhausted to eat. It was a cruel irony, and we forced ourselves to eat the soup -- which was actually really very yummy. We waited for the rain to stop .. which it didn't .. cleaned up .. and fell asleep shivering. Summer weight gear just doesn't cut it in 35 degree rain -- even with thermals.
Woke up still cold, ate a small breakfast, and studied the map. We decided that we would definitely take the Sentiero Di Shay Trail which is a cross country trail that parallels the BFT and is a bit further away from the water. After yesterday's river crossing problems, not to mention the exhausting climbs, we decided this would be a good idea. The BFT in this area boasted 12 river crossings so the High Water Trail seemed smart. Also, my knees were now quite stiff and bruised from yesterdays fall, and being the pessimist among us, I was glad to take the "easy way"
The Sentiero Di Shay was very boggy, but not yet buggy. The cues seemed to be written from some point in the middle of the trail, but we followed the blazes, and made excellent time on the mostly flat terrain.
At one point in the middle of the day, I asked Jeffrey to stop a second so that I can adjust my shoelaces -- I'd become quite conscious of them by then. He says stopping is a good idea because there is a skunk in the trail. Skunks are nocturnal animals and aren't out in the day unless they are "sick or stupid" he informs me. Jeffrey must have a vault in his head for this kind of trivia. This skunk is limping, with his tail high, and back arched. I'm thinking it must be sick (rabid) -- although I wasn't ruling out stupid. We watch the skunk wander across the trail to the right, and we decide to go wide to the left to avoid it. It watches us very intently as we pass, but we get by safely and continue along.
We hiked about 7 or 8 miles, looked at the map and saw a good camping area with water a mile or two up. We were thinking about taking the shortcut home and this would put us in an ideal place to make that decision in the morning. It was only 3:30, but we figured this would leave us plenty of time to enjoy the "camping out" experience. Within minutes of stopping, I was cold and shivering - despite the sun finally showing through the clouds. We cooked up an excellent dinner (Mexican macaroni), dried some of our clothes on a clothesline, went for a short walk, and wrote a bit in our journal. It was nice to relax, although every time I stopped moving too much, I started shivering... even when I didn't feel that cold. Jeffrey tried to start a fire but the wood was just too wet. We turned in to the tent as the sun was going down. I kept falling in and out of sleep, each time waking up colder than before, hoping daylight was soon.
Before daylight approached, rain did. Actually, it sounded like rain, but further inspection revealed a significant layer of snow covering our quaint camp site.
Hoping to wait it out, we stayed in the tent for a few hours, and finally around 10:00 felt certain it was not going to stop. We studied the maps yet again, and plotted the shortest route back to the car. We would follow the Baldwin-Gas Line Trail for a little over 2 miles, travel south on the BFT for a mile or 2, and take an unblazed Jerald Trail down to the road. Then we'd follow a dirt road, and a paved road a few more miles back to the car. It looked like about 9 or 10 miles, scarcely shorter than the BFT, but it would be a much easier hike. Following the BFT home would give us a very steep descent (1100ft/1mi) followed by an equally steep ascent, followed shortly again by another long descent. This sounded like a fine adventure - but one better saved for a sunnier day. The route we chose had only one long steep descent and we knew that would save us some critical time.
We donned all our rain gear, packed up pretty quick, and set off. I was happy to be moving, and warmed up once we started. We passed a forest ranger along a path and chatted briefly with him. He told us the forecasts called for electrical storms and continued rain and snow. He also confirmed that the unblazed trails we were heading for existed. The Jerald Trail was very narrow, very steep, and very icy. We slowly made our way down and soon we were walking along the road. The snow had turned to rain.
On the way up to the car we passed the BFT reroute trailhead. (still no promised parking lot.) There was a sign right there in plain letters that said the bridge was out. We laughed.
A few miles up the road, we arrived at my snow covered car. A huge blister in my heal burst open in celebration. The rain stopped. We packed up the car and headed home -- stopping at the general store for a bottle of the best Mountain Dew I ever drank. I couldn't stop smiling.
We only hiked 30-35 of our planned 42 miles, and of those, only about 15 on the BFT. we only camped 2 of our planned 3 nights, but I'm not ashamed of the decisions we made. We'll be back, better prepared from the lessons we learned, and with warmer thermals and extra moleskin.